All posts in: Photoshop Tutorials
livery painting tutorial

One of the most common questions I get about my free JPG sideview airliner templates is how to add realistic color and highlights to them. There are many of you who are struggling with this, so I thought it would be good to explain just how easy it is using Photoshop. And as a matter of fact, you can use any graphics editing software you want. Any decent graphics or illustration program will do, but for the sake of this tutorial I’ll show you how to edit the JPEG files directly in Photoshop.

So go ahead and download one of my free templates – any one of them will do, fire up Photoshop, and let’s get started! In addition to writing this all out in an easy to follow step-by-step guide (below), I also created a video for those who prefer to learn that way:

Step one: tracing the entire aircraft

The easiest way to add color to these templates is to simply cover the entire thing, and then erase what you don’t need. For the sake of this demo, I’m just going to use red. It’s a bright color, and it will be easy to show how this is done.

In order to trace the entire aircraft, I just use the magic wand tool and click anywhere outside of the aircraft. What this does is selects the entire white area of the background – which is backwards from what we really want, but that’s okay.

use magic wand tool to select background

Use the magic wand tool and click anywhere in the white space on the background.

Just go to the top menu and click Select > Inverse and now the active selection area has been switched to the edges of the aircraft instead of the background.

select inverse tool photoshop menu

Choose Select > Inverse to change the selection from the background to the aircraft.

Create a new layer. This is the layer that we will be adding our color to.

create a new layer

Create a new layer in the layers window.

change fill color

Change your primary fill color to red (or whatever color you want your aircraft to be).

To fill the selected area with color, just hold down Option + Backspace (or Ctrl + Backspace if you’re on a PC) on your keyboard and it fills in the selection area with your primary color. You’ll notice when you do that that the vertical stabilizer and other small details may not get filled in, simply because their color matches the white color of the background too closely and it was never selected in the first place. That’s okay. Just use the lasso tool to trace the outline of the vertical stabilizer (or any other part that was missed) and press Option + Delete on your keyboard to fill those empty spaces.

fill command applied

After applying the Fill command, you may get something that looks like this. Don’t worry – we can fix that.

use lasso tool to select vertical stabilizer

Use the Lasso tool to trace around any areas that were missed in the original selection.

photoshop fill command

Once you’ve selected the missing pieces, go ahead and use the Fill command to fill it with your primary color.

Step two: adding transparency

Okay, now that you got your entire aircraft covered with red, you can easily see that it doesn’t look very good. There’s no detail! Don’t worry, this is an easy fix.

entire aircraft filled with color

Everything is now filled with color, but it still doesn’t look very good.

With your color layer selected, simply go to the blending modes drop down at the top of the layers palette and choose “ Multiply”. Voila! You can now see all the shadows and details of the template underneath, while maintaining the fully vibrancy of the red fill color.

photoshop multiply blending mode

Choose “Multiply” from the dropdown menu at the top of the layers window.

Step three: trimming your color layer

We obviously don’t want paint over top of the wings and other details, so it will be necessary to trim all those areas away. With your color layer selected, use the lasso tool to trace around any areas where you do not want color. I usually hold down the Option key on my keyboard and then click around the object to trace – this constrains the lasso to straight lines which makes it a lot easier to trace complex objects.

use the lasso tool to trim

Now its time to go back and start trimming out all the areas you don’t want color. Use the Lasso tool for this.

Step four: adding highlights

Starting to look pretty good isn’t it? There are some more things we need to do in order for it to start looking realistic though. The biggest issue is the lack of highlights. The fuselage of an aircraft is essentially a large cylinder, and it’s not going to look realistic until you put a highlight right down the center of it. In order to do that, select the soft paint brush tool with a radius of 65 and change your primary fill color to white.

Create a new layer and simply draw a horizontal line with that soft brush across the entire length of the fuselage. Holding down the Shift key will constrain the line to be perfectly straight which really helps in situations like this. Don’t worry about coloring outside the lines – just put a nice highlight across the length of the fuselage, and we will trim away everything that spills over the edges in a moment.

painting highlight with photoshop

Change your primary fill color to white and choose a soft brush with a radius of 65. Create a new layer, and paint a horizontal line with that brush across the length of the fuselage.

If it’s too sharp you can use the Gaussian Blur (Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur) tool to blur it out to your liking.

Once you got looking the way you like, we need to trim away all the white highlight that is spilling beyond the edges of the fuselage. Go back to your color layer, hover over the thumbnail icon of the layer and click it while holding down Command on your keyboard. This will select the entire color layer. Then go to Select > Inverse.

With the color layer still showing the marching ants around it, select the highlight layer and then press delete on your keyboard. This will delete all of the blurred white highlight that was extending outside the edges of the aircraft.

trimming away highlight

Don’t forget to trim away all the white highlight color that extends beyond the edges of the fuselage!

Step five: enhancing the details

Its starting to look like a real aircraft isn’t it? The only problem now is that we can’t see the windows anymore. While you could go through your layers and just delete everything that is covering each window, I would advise against that simply because you want to leave color and highlight layers intact as much as possible. Do not cut those up, because you never know when you need to go back and edit them in the future.

The easiest way to bring back the windows is to simply re-create them. It takes a few minutes but it’s totally worth it. You can do this by creating a new layer and then use the ellipse selection tool to trace an existing window. Fill that with black, and then duplicate that layer for each window using the position of the windows in my template as a guide. What you got all the windows re-created, it’s best just to combine all those window layers into one to keep things simple and organized.

tracing a window

With your bottom (aircraft) layer selected, recreate one window by tracing it with the ellipse selection tool, and then use a copy and paste command – this will automatically create a new layer with just this window in it.

duplicating windows

Keep duplicating that new window layer until you have all the windows recreated. Then, combine all those layers into one and move them back into position. Make sure this new layer is above your color layer, or you’ll never see it!

new windows created

Once you recreate your windows and place that layer over your color layer, this is what it should look like.

Step six: Bling!

One of my favorite parts about creating aircraft illustrations is adding the hard reflection on the vertical stabilizer. It’s the little details like this which will really make your illustration pop and give it tons of depth.

To create a hard reflection, simply trace the edges of the vertical stabilizer with the lasso tool.

tracing with lasso tool

Trace the vertical stabilizer with the lasso tool.

Create a new layer, and use the gradient tool to add a white gradient to the front edge of the vertical stabilizer.
As you can see, our first pass of this is much to bright. Since it’s on its own layer, increase the transparency of the layer so that it’s not so strong.

photoshop foreground to transparent linear gradient

Select the linear gradient tool (foreground to transparent) with white as your primary color.

applying linear gradient photoshop

It’s a bit difficult to see in this screenshot, but notice how I am drawing a diagonal line with the linear gradient tool from the front edge of the vertical stabilizer to the center.

Then use the lasso tool draw a hard line down the center of the vertical stabilizer. Delete the left edge.

trimming using lasso tool

Trim away that gradient with the lasso tool. Select the area you don’t want, then press Delete on your keyboard.

vertical stabilizer reflection

This is what it looks like after trimming the reflection. Notice that I reduced the opacity of the reflection in the layers window – you don’t want it too strong!

aircraft painting almost complete

It’s starting too look much more realistic now, but one thing that I don’t like about this is the hard reflection of the vertical stabilizer compared to the soft reflection on the fuselage. Let’s do something about that…

airliner template painting complete

Selecting the layer for the soft highlight on the fuselage and then cutting it in half with the rectangular selection tool gives it the appearance of being a hard reflection – which matches the hard reflection of the vertical stabilizer. Much better!

So there you have it. Adding color to my free JPEG templates isn’t really that difficult, and you’ll get a lot better with practice. Of course my high resolution PSD templates are much easier to work with (because each element is on a separate layer), but working with these JPEG’s will seem like second nature once you get the hang of it.

Still have questions? Leave a comment below or feel free to email me if there’s something that you’re still getting stuck with. I’d love to help!

Direct selection of layers

To some, this may seem like a total “duh” tip – but you wouldn’t believe the number of people I run into that don’t know that you can directly select layers in Photoshop (from your canvas) without having to wade through the layers window. I am somewhat ashamed that even I didn’t know this until a few years ago. Immediately upon discovery, I couldn’t help but to think of all the wasted hours I had spent scrolling trough the layers dialog in search of elusive layers that I was too lazy to name.
So what’s the trick to selecting layers directly from the canvas? It’s actually very simple, and I can explain it in a few simple steps:

  1. On your canvas, hover over the element you want to select the layer for.
  2. If you’re on a Mac without left and right mouse buttons, hold down the “control” key and click the mouse. Or, if you are using a mouse with left and right buttons, right click on it (works on both Mac and PC).
  3. A dialog should appear, showing you a list of all your layers located at that spot where you clicked, with the layer of the element you selected already chosen for you.
  4. Click on it, and…voila! You have just selected that layer without even having to navigate inside your layers window.

This is a total lifesaver for those times when you receive a complex PSD file from someone else who hasn’t taken the time to organize and name their layers. As a matter of fact, that’s actually what led me to discover this little trick. I was up late one night fighting my way through an edit of a PSD that I had received from another designer, and in a fit of frustration, the smashing of the keyboard and simultaneous clicks of the mouse somehow magically aligned to reveal this handy little shortcut. I was like, “Whoa! How did I do that??” Then I spent the next 10 minutes trying to recreate those key and button smashing combinations before I finally gave up and summoned the power of google to find an explicit description of the shortcut. My life as a designer was forever changed from that moment on.

Photoshop Blending Modes

I admit it – I’m a blending mode junkie. Most of the background images in my portfolio are the result of a LOT of blending mode combinations that are used together to create interesting effects. Before I begin to create a new background image, I don’t always have a clear idea in my mind of what I want it to look like – I usually just end up throwing several textures together in the layers palette and experimenting with blending mode adjustments until I get something that looks halfway decent.

If you aren’t aware of the power of these layer blending modes in Photoshop, you’re missing out on a whole world of creative possibilities. In a nutshell, this tool is found in the layers palette in the form of a drop down box at the top of the window. You need several layers in your palette before this drop down box becomes active, and you cannot apply these blending modes to the bottom (base) layer. Go ahead and pick any layer (as long as it’s not the bottom one), and try out a few blending mode options. Your image will update in real time, and depending on the blending mode that you choose, it can create some rather dramatic effects. Pretty neat, huh?

If you are like me and you incorporate these blending modes into your normal workflow, you’ll need a quick way to cycle through them quickly instead of picking them one by one (which takes far too long). Here’s how to do that:

On Windows:
Make sure the layer you wish to apply the blending modes to is selected, then click on the blending mode drop down box. Choose “Normal”, and let go of the mouse. The drop down box will stay highlighted, and you can now quickly toggle through the entire list with the up and down arrow keys on your keyboard.

On a Mac:
Make sure the layer you wish to apply the blending modes to is selected, then click on the blending mode drop down box. Choose “Normal”, and let go of the mouse. The arrow keys on your keyboard won’t toggle through these blending modes like they would on a Windows machine, so you’ll have to hold down the Shift key and use the “-” and “+” keys to cycle through all the modes.

As a producer of royalty-free images, there are a lot of repetitive tasks I am faced with in my day to day work. Every illustration I produce must go through some sort of post processing before I can upload them, which can include things like resizing, keywording, and general retouching of any sections that didn’t render exactly like I had planned. I wish it were as simple as just pressing the “render” button in FormZ (my 3d modeling program of choice) and have the resulting image prepped and ready for upload to – or any other site that I upload to. If life were easy, that’s exactly how I would envision it to work. But as we all know, life is never that convenient is it?

For the sake of this explanation about Photoshop actions, I’ll discuss one of the most common repetitive tasks that I must do with all of my royalty-free 3d illustrations: batch resizing. I normally need three sizes of every image that I produce: one large version that is 8000px wide (for my own archives), a version that is 5000px wide (for uploading to all of the major microstock websites), and one 4000px version with some minor alterations specific to‘s strict upload requirements. Of course, if it’s an exclusive image that will only be uploaded to, I only need two versions for my archives: an 8000px version, and a 1024px version. But no matter what the image will be used for, the same issue applies: I need a quick way to batch resize images, and Adobe’s “Actions” tool in Photoshop can really help with that.

This is how I set up my Photoshop actions to automate my image resizing tasks

First of all, if you aren’t familiar with the actions tool, it can be found in the “Window” menu drop down box in Photoshop’s main toolbar at the top of the screen. Selecting the actions tool will launch a small window in your screen space containing all of the functions and options for setting up your actions.

If the idea of yet another floating window on your screen seems a bit messy, have no fear – you can very easily organize them with Photoshop’s powerful window tools. Did you know that you can combine several windows into one? Yep, it’s true – just click and drag any window into another, and they will “attach” together. The contents of each will be viewable by selecting the associated tabs in the new combo window. Pretty neat, huh? I normally combine my layers, actions, and text windows into one, as they are by far the most useful palettes for my particular workflow. Feel free to arrange things however you prefer.

Step one: Creating a new action from scratch

So now that you’re organized and ready to go, let’s set up an action that will re-size large images down to, say, 2000px. The first thing to do is to open an image that you want to resize. This will be your “template” image, meaning that the actions you apply to and record for this one will be applied equally to any other image you will apply this action to.

Open your actions palette, and you will see a list of default actions already in place. Ignore those for now, as none of them will do what we want to do. So we will need to create a new action from scratch.

Now that the palette is open, you will notice a small “page” icon in the bottom right hand corner of the frame (screenshot shown at right). This is the “new” icon, and it is a common element in all Photoshop palettes. Clicking this icon is a much faster way than manually selecting the “New Action” item from the main menu at the top of the page – so it’s something that you might want to make a habit of. It will make your workflow much more efficient!

Don’t worry about about all those other icons along that bottom menu yet – I’ll explain what each of those do as I go through each individual step. Click this button, and proceed to the next section.

Step two: create a name for your new action

After clicking on the “new” icon, it will launch a dialog window that will allow you to set basic parameters of the action such as a name and color identification (which comes in handy if you’re going to create a lot of actions). Go ahead and name it whatever makes the most sense to you – and you can also set up some keyboard shortcuts if that sort of thing floats your boat. I think it’s a neat feature, but I had difficulty setting it up to work correctly on my Macbook Pro. No matter what Function keys I selected, my Macbook refused to execute the actions. I’m sure there is an easy fix for that, but that’s the topic of another tutorial… Anyway, I will name may action: “norebbo 2000 wide”. I know, I know. Sometimes I astound myself with my own creativity.

Step three: setting the parameters for the action (or, more simply: recording the action)

As you can see in the actions palette to the right, the name of my new Action named “norebbo 2000 wide” is automatically selected. That means that it’s ready to receive recording information. It is very important that you pay attention to what action is selected in your palette before you begin recording! I can’t count the number of times I made the bone-headed move of recording data to an action I had made previously.

With the name of your new action selected, press the red “record” button in the bottom menu of the action palette. The button will appear to be pressed in when you click it, indicating that you are now in a recording mode.

It is very important to understand that from this point forward, with that red “record” button selected, everything you do now will be recorded as part of the action. So this is not the time to experiment with color variations or layer adjustments. You don’t want your actions to be bloated with unnecessary tasks, so be very certain that what you do to your image while you are recording is what you want to do to every image you apply this action to. Filling your actions with a lot of unnecessary steps will increase the time it takes to perform the action, and that can add up if you have a lot of images to process.

So now that you are in a recording mode, you can begin processing your image. In my case, I need to make an action that will scale a large image down to 2000px wide. As I complete that step, everything I do is recorded in the actions palette as a separate list item. As you can see from the screenshot to the left, I have also added one more adjustment in addition to the image size change: a bit of shapening, faded it by 50%. Happy with the way the image looks, I save the image and close it. Notice how the actions palette records every step – even the closing of the image!

Before you do anything else, stop the recording by pressing the gray square “stop” icon at the far left of the tool bar (shown in the diagram to the left). This is the one step that I seemingly forget over and over again, and if the action is still gathering data, it will record everything I do until I press that “stop” button. Don’t forget!

But if you are like me and you do end up forgetting this crucial step, no worries. You can edit your actions even after you’ve stopped recording. Just double-click the item in your action that you wish to change, and you will be able to change the parameters you set while you were recording. Note that you can also change the order of the steps by just clicking and dragging an item, or you can even delete individual steps as well by selecting it and pressing the trash can icon in the far right end of the tool bar. It’s an easy way to fix your action if you are bone-headed like me and forget to press the “stop” button before moving on to other things.

Step four: executing your action on a single image or an entire batch of files

Now that you have created your action, it is time to apply it to other images. You have several options in order to go about doing this. The easiest way is to simply open up another image into Photoshop, select the name of the action you want to execute, and press the gray triangle icon (“play button”) in the toolbar of the actions palette. Photoshop will take care of the rest and process your image quicker than human hands ever could. Voila. It’s that simple!

But what if you need to apply that action to an entire folder of images? No problem – that’s very easy too. Use Photoshop’s built in “Batch” command (found by going to “File > Automate > Batch…”) to set up the parameters for applying actions to large batches of images. This will launch a dialog window crammed full of settings that will require you to select the action you want to use, choose the images you want to apply that action to, and how you want to save them. Personally, I find this dialog box too complicated for simple batch tasks. Luckily, there is one more (easier) way to do it: use Adobe Bridge!

Adobe Bridge is a visual file browser, which lets you see thumbnail images of all your files instead of just text file names. If you have Photoshop, you have Bridge – they are bundled together. Launch Bridge, and go to the directory where you have placed your files that you want to apply your new action to. Select every file that you want to change, and then go to the Bridge menu and select “Tools > Photoshop > Batch…”  This will invoke that same dialog I discussed above, but the added benefit of doing it through Bridge is that the files you want to change are already selected in that dialog. So basically, it eliminates one step. You may prefer to do this directly through Photoshop, but I have found that it’s easier to do it through bridge – try it both ways to see what works best for you.


As you have just read, Photoshop’s actions tool is a great way to automate repetitive tasks. It can be used for very simple one-step processes like renaming files, but it’s also powerful enough to create complex 50-step actions that would take forever to do on an image-by-image basis. And since every step in the actions are fully editable, you can continue to tweak and fine-tune your actions until you get them right. No need to delete and start over if you don’t get it right the first time!

Although setting up and using Photoshop actions may seem complicated, you will quickly discover how much of a valuable asset they are in developing an efficient work flow.